Croxley: Maximum Milk, Minimum Moo

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Last Wednesday saw funding confirmed for a project that many had thought would never see the light of day – the Croxley Rail Link.

The Croxley Rail Link is a project that London Reconnections has followed since our earliest days. Indeed it featured in our very first post back in 2008. Since then, its objectives have barely changed – divert the Metropolitan Line away from Watford Station and head to Watford Junction, with intermediate stations along the way.

Since 2008, the scheme has been publicly championed by Hertfordshire County Council, who have long seen an improved interchange at Watford Junction as a way to revitalise an area of the County that has seemed to under-perform economically. The scheme, however, is older than that – it was first proposed in its current form by London Underground in 1994, and it was they who carried out the first feasibility studies before Herts took up the reins in 1997 and begin trying to find a route to implementation.

Given the above, it is perhaps unsurprising that much of the coverage of the Croxley Rail Link announcement has so far focused primarily on Herts’ satisfaction at finally getting their own major rail infrastructure project successfully onto the table. This is indeed a major achievement and one which should be lauded. By taking on London Underground’s initial plans and quietly, but firmly, continuing to push, modify and develop them for 13 years, Herts have helped prove that it is possible for the Local Authorities along the Capital’s periphery to be involved in London’s rail infrastructure in a positive way (and also that sometimes it really is worth resisting the temptation to say “Sod it. Lets just build a busway”). Considering TfL’s active ambitions outward with regards to franchising and Oyster, Herts’ demonstration that influence can follow the up line as well as the down is a good thing.

With details of the Croxley Rail Link agreement now becoming more evident, however, there is also another important aspect to the project that is well worth highlighting:- The Croxley Rail Link looks set to demonstrate, for good or ill, whether “rail on a budget” really works. Look into the details, and it becomes clear that Herts have had to de-scope the Croxley Rail Link to within an inch of its life, sweating money and assets to – as the title suggests – extract the maximum milk for the absolute minimum amount of moo.

The Final Scheme

The map below gives a schematic view of how the project will now manifest.

The Croxley Rail Link

The Croxley Rail Link, with thanks to George

Construction will likely start in 2014, and then the existing Metropolitan Line alignment to the current Watford terminus will be closed to passengers from 2016, with services diverted to Watford Junction instead. This link will be achieved by providing an embankment and viaduct from the Croxley rail line across Watford road passing between the A412 roundabouts and over the Grand Union Canal and Gade River. This will then follow the disused Croxley rail alignment (which will be double-tracked) to Watford High Street then on to Watford Junction. Intermediate stations will now be built at Ascot Road (to mitigate the loss of the Watford terminus) and Watford Hospital. The map below shows a more geographical overview of the link.

Croxley Geographically

The Croxley Rail Link Geographically

Savings and Loan

The reduction in project cost from an approximate £170m in 2008 to £115m today is one that both the DfT and Herts have trumpeted. From the DfT’s perspective, it conveys nicely the impression that the Men from Marsham have managed to curb the excesses of an excited Local Authority and bring some transport nous to bear. For Herts it suggests something relatively similar – that they are taking their role as project sponsor seriously and are prepared to compromise to achieve their aims.

In reality, however, the difference between the cost in 2008 and today is actually far less than it seems, for much of that saving has actually come about simply because the project is now at a far more advanced stage of planning and development than it was three years ago. As a result, its not the cost of building the Croxley Rail Link that’s dropped massively – it’s the cost of covering the risk. Put simply (and indeed as it is with most major rail projects), Herts had originally asked the DfT to include £60m to act as an insurance policy against the unexpected, and now that the project has been far more tightly scoped this figure can be far smaller – closer to £8m.

As a result, the current forecasted cost breakdown is now as follows:

Contributor amount
The DfT £76.24m
3rd Party (mainly developers) £6.86m
Herts County Council £33.7m

The majority of Herts’ contribution will come at the front end of the project, with the DfT unlikely to provide any actual funds before 2013 at the earliest.

Herts’ contribution will largely come from a 25 year loan secured against future council tax receipts. At first glance this may appear to be Tax Increment Funding, but this isn’t the case. In fact, London Underground have agreed to remit the completed extensions profits above operating costs back to Herts County Council until the loan has been repaid. It is these that Herts will use to meet the loan payments which will run to about £1.4m a year.

Breaking the Project Down

Although the bulk of the cost reduction overall has come from the reduction in risk, as was suggested above, there have been considerable efficiencies elsewhere. That these don’t manifest as greater savings is largely down to the fact that, after the additional project scoping, it has become apparent that Herts’ initial proposal underestimated the costs by almost £20m. A good proportion of this is due to the need to provide a new electrical substation that they’d originally hoped to do without, but it is also because it seems they’d hoped that London Underground would agree to DLR style unstaffed stations and a reduced level of line signalling – neither of which London Underground was prepared to do.

Those savings found show just how closely the project scope has been pruned.

In track and stock terms, more of the existing rail infrastructure and ballast will be reused. The planned turnback at Watford Hospital will also not be built and instead the line to Watford will be retained and used for stabling. This will be potentially less resilient from a service perspective. The viaduct will also only have one maintenance walkway rather than two, and indeed serious thought was apparently given to making it single, rather than double tracked – although ultimately this was rejected as having too severe an effect on service resilience. Herts will also pay for a single new unit of S-Stock. Serious thought was apparently given to dropping this, which would have meant reducing the service levels to 4tph, but this was was seen as too much of a compromise.

It’s with the stations, however, that most of the scope trimming has taken place. Originally, platform lengthening had been planned for Watford High Street and on platforms 1 and 2 at Watford Junction. This was because it was anticipated that the trains would overhang the platforms – something that goes against Network Rail’s standards. Network Rail have agreed, however, that in this case alternate safety arrangements can be made and those extensions now won’t be built.

Various other economies will also be made in terms of construction and improvement of the new stations. The buildings at Watford Hospital will be smaller, and there will be less CCTV coverage. There will be shared staff accommodation across the extension as well, minimising the need for building space. The level of finishing at all stations will be reduced and modular, preconstructed building segments used wherever possible. The canopy at Ascot Road will also be reduced in length. Platform furnishings – such as additional benches – will also be kept to an absolute minimum.

Finally, there will be an interesting level of recycling on the extension – it appears that both the ticket machines and other assets from Watford Station will likely reappear at Ascot Road.

In essence, the Croxley Rail Link has been designed to meet the absolute minimum standard established by London Underground for their infrastructure.

Proving A Point

Overall, therefore, the Croxley Rail Link will represent an interesting infrastructure experiment. Those expecting something comparable to the work carried out by TfL on the Overground are likely to be disappointed, for as can be seen from the above this is very much a project that demands the absolute maximum bang from every buck.

It is important to remember, however, that in many ways the simple fact that the Croxley Rail Link is proceeding at all is something to be celebrated. The Croxley Rail Link represents proof that it’s not just Britain’s cities that should dare to think bigger when it comes to public transport projects.

The Croxley Rail Link will open up a new, better interchange at Watford Junction – although the effectiveness of that link will be partially dependent upon the number of WCML trains that stop there. It also potentially leads to a reopening of the debate on a Watford Junction to Amersham link, although given the pressure on the Underground’s resources this must be seen as a very low priority. Should it be successful, it also opens up a potential world of possibilities with regards to road relief in the area and indeed general rail services beyond Amersham.

At its most basic level though, the Croxley Rail Link will be of definite benefit to Watford, and if nothing else, its tight scoping and somewhat rough and ready natures seems likely to finally provide a definitive answer to an all-too-frequently asked question:

”It costs HOW MUCH to build a basic station these days?!”

Written by John Bull